Ontario no longer has shortest health-care wait times in Canada

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, December 5, 2018
Ontario no longer has shortest health-care wait times in Canada

Sadly, long wait times for medical treatment have defined the Canadian health-care system for many years. Long waits visit a wide range of harms upon Canadians including unnecessary pain and suffering, lost opportunities and productivity at work, and in some instances worse medical outcomes after treatment occurs.

Defenders of the status quo often waive away concerns about wait times, suggesting they’re simply the price Canadians must pay for universal access to care, pointing to the perpetual bogeyman of “American-style” health care as the only alternative.

In reality, there’s evidence from all over the world that it’ possible to maintain universal health care without the long wait times that plague our system. For example, countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia all share Canada’s goal of universal access to care, and dedicate roughly the same portion of GDP to that cause (on an age-adjusted basis). However, they all generally have more medical resources and significantly shorter wait times than Canada.

Unfortunately, Canada has underperformed relative to its international peers for some time. In Ontario, however, there has long been a very feint silver lining—that wait times in this province may be long by international standards, but are at least the shortest in Canada. Even this consolation prize, however, has now been lost.

The most recent edition of the Fraser Institute’s “Waiting Your Turn: Wait Times for Health Care in Canada” study released yesterday tells the story.

This year, the median wait time (as reported by physicians through a survey) between referral from a family doctor to treatment—across 12 medical specialities—ticked up from 15.4 weeks to 15.7 weeks in Ontario. A simultaneous fall in wait times in Saskatchewan (following substantial reforms of its health-care system) allowed Saskatchewan to overtake Ontario and claim the top-spot this year. Similarly, a drop in wait times in neighbouring Quebec brought that province to within 0.1 weeks of Ontario on median wait times.

So Ontario now has the second-shortest wait times in Canada, essentially tied with third-place Quebec. Again though, it must be stressed—the fact that even these provinces have wait times for treatment averaging almost four months illustrates just how pervasive long wait times for care are in Canada.

While wait times have ticked up generally in Ontario, there are some areas of particular concern. For instance, Ontarians waited 29.7 weeks (on average) for orthopedic surgery this year and 28.9 weeks for ophthalmology procedures. More generally, averaged across the 12 specialties, patients wait approximately two weeks longer for treatment after seeing a specialist than what physicians consider clinically reasonable.

Behind these numbers, which can seem sterile on the printed page, are thousands of individual Canadians and Ontarians who suffer unnecessarily as they wait for treatments that could reduce pain and/or improve functionality. Clearly, the status quo is broken.

Again, despite ranking among the highest spenders, Canada has some of the longest wait times for treatment in the developed world. While wait times in Ontario are shorter than the national average, the province no longer has the “least-long” wait times in Canada, forcing patients to wait almost four months for medically necessary care without any options for recourse within our country’s borders. Policymakers at Queen’s Park should recognize Ontarians are suffering longer than they should be and take action to reform the outdated policy models that contribute to long wait times.

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